Island life could be under threat if young residents continue to struggle to get access to housing, it has been claimed. Islanders in the Western Isles say they face having to leave to find homes, and work, on the mainland.
They say a lack of new-builds, high costs and homes being used as short-term lets add to the problem. Community landlord Storas Uibhist say more affordable homes are needed to halt depopulation.
Storas Uibhist, which manages the 93,000-acre South Uist Estate, is working with Rural Housing Scotland on plans for a small, new community at Lochboisdale on South Uist. Called Smart Clachan, the idea is a modern twist on the traditional clachan – small communities comprising a few houses where residents share land for livestock and growing vegetables.
Smart Clachan development officer Donna Young said the project offered hope. Prefabricated modular homes would be constructed on Barra by Modular West for the Lochboisdale site. Ms Young said: “Smart Clachan is a 21st-century revival of an old clachan on the islands where we hope to create a community through housing and through shared spaces such as gardens, and shared work spaces.”
It is hoped similar schemes could be developed in other parts of the Western Isles and potentially elsewhere in Scotland. One of those interested in the project is Steven Macdonald, whose family has lived on North Uist for generations.
He said: “I moved away from home for five years and my dream was always to come back here to raise a family myself. Myself and my fiancee have been searching for a house for a good year and a bit now.”
Mr Macdonald said available homes were few and far between, and often expensive, while there were long waiting lists for social housing.
“My dream would be to build my own house but, again, costs for materials have gone through the roof and land is through the roof as well,” he said.
“If we aren’t able to find something long term then we are going to have to sadly move away again.”
It has been a similarly frustrating experience for musician Paul Burgess. He left the Western Isles for Glasgow when he was 18 but, like many other islanders, later returned to the isles to live and work. He said holiday homes were important to the islands’ economy, but he would like to see a greater provision of properties for people who want to live and work in the isles.
“I have just turned 29 and I am still living at [my parents’] home,” he said. “I want a place of my own in Uist but I’m finding there is nowhere even to rent. Anything that gets built has people waiting to get in – it’s just really hard to find anywhere to live here.”
The number of residential property sales in the Western Isles in 2021-22 was 423, which is the third lowest level among Scotland’s 32 local authority areas after Orkney and Shetland, according to the Registers of Scotland.
There were also no new-build homes sales in the Western Isles last year, and just five in 2020-21. Moreover, the Registers of Scotland’s newly published Property Market Report said the value of residential sales in the Western Isles had more than doubled over the last 19 years.
The average house price was £144,880 in 2021-22 and, according to the report, the islands saw the highest proportion of cash sales of all Scottish local authority areas at 54%. According to recent Scottish Government research into short-term lets, the Western Isles now have 397 homes and 113 private rooms run as holiday lets.
“It is really no exaggeration to see housing posing an existential threat to island life and if we don’t address the problems, particularly the ones young people are facing, depopulation will continue,” said Storas Uibhist chief Darren Taylor.
“People will move to the mainland, not because they want to, but because they are faced with no alternative.”
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